Excerpt from a multi-channel audio piece – electromagnetic fields recorded on a walk from studio to home in Brooklyn.
There is a hidden signal that surrounds us as we walk through the city. It is a fabric we move through, woven of electromagnetic waves emanating from sources as commonplace as fluorescent signage or as overlooked as the buzzing green boxes that control traffic signals.
That cell phone in your pocket; those cell phone repeaters mounted on the rooftop of the neighboring building, or your own; wireless routers in every home and office; networked electronics that control street lights; GPS systems in your car; power transformers in the street; microwaves on your kitchen counter; plasma screens in your living room; radio signals from commercial or civilian band radio. All of these technologies emit electromagnetic (light) radiation. Some function by transmitting, relaying or receiving coded signals via these waves. Others simply give off this electromagnetic radiation as intentional or unintended by-product of their functioning.
Visible light is one such by-product. Other types of light radiation are known to us by a scientific name, or because we have developed consumer products which have assumed the names given to specific light frequencies (x-rays, ultraviolet lights, microwaves, “radio”). Gamma rays and x-rays are names given to ultra-high frequencies of electromagnetic radiation whose wavelengths scale to roughly the size of an atom. Radio waves are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with wavelengths perhaps traveling the distance of a city block from arc to arc.
On any given day as we pass through the urban environment (and increasingly, the rural one) we are unawares to an encounter with millions upon millions of coded signals that are carried on these frequencies. Some are composed of transmissions with specific, man-mande messages (cell phones, wifi, timing and signaling relays) while others seem only to be broadcasting noise. Electricity in our home buzzes at around 60hz. Our brainwaves at around 30hz. The space they occupy is invisible but omni-present.
Within this space, we can inscribe narratives of power, control and corporate subterfuge — or paranoia. We could also use the space to ground new narratives, or to find historical memories of our culture. We could invent devices that allow us to “read” the uncoded signals, and turn the noise into a signal (what did a Hoover Vacuum from 1969 have to say, anyway? And did it appreciate being called Hoover?) We could simply attempt to collect the frequencies of the waves themselves — record their energy onto audio tape or transmit them via radio.
De Certeau, in his Walking the City, intends that we insert the body into every open urban space as a means of undoing and redoing: undoing structures that were imposed by urban planners, developers, and technocrats upon the city, and redoing those structures with architectures that reflect our personal and collective needs:
“Linking acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions, these words operate in the name of an emptying-out and wearing-away of their primary role. They become liberated spaces that can be occupied.”
Swarms of Invisible Beams is part of an ongoing investigation into these liminal and overlooked spaces. The larger work, which I called the Electromagnetic Field Archaeologies Project, undertook a series of performances in which I rode my normal bike route around the city and, using a modified tape recorder, recorded low frequency electromagnetic fields that I encountered on my way from my home in Clinton Hill to my studio in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn.
A second part of the project/performance was to collect strips and bits of magnetic audio tape which twists around trees and street signs throughout the city, and to try to unearth some of the sounds hidden therein. De Certeau talks about how our personal “magnetic field of trajectories” is oriented and re-oriented based on our personal memories of places-of-interest and places-to-avoid. Our walking through the city is in this way a form of recording.
Electromagnetic fields are also contained on a strand of cassette tape. The memory of the song they hold is a cultural memory we all share. Hidden in bits of magnetized plastic around the city are recordings of children’s first words, mixtape lullabies and lovesongs, and motivational speakers (at an unbelievably prolific rate — maybe 3 out of every 4 tapes I’ve found) chucked out of car windows.
Swarms of Invisible Beams interleaves stories of the ecological and suspected environmental health effects of electromagnetic radiation to reveal an electro-paranormal paranoia. It is presented as a 10-minute, essayistic sound collage piece designed for radio that explores a variety of phenomena related to electromagnetic fields as secret purveyors of cultural memory and as potential hazards to human and environmental health. The piece draws on interviews and research I conducted with members of an Electromagnetic Field Hypersensitivity (EHS) support group earlier this year while on residency in New Mexico, and specifically, the transcript of a short telephone interview with a former laboratory scientist named Arthur Firstenberg, a resident of Santa Fe, NM. At the time of my research, Firstenberg was involved in a lawsuit against his neighbor for her refusal to disconnect her WiFi router and turn off her cellphone when Firstenberg is at home.
The members of the EHS support group are literally haunted by electromagnetic fields, and have been forced to cloister on the edges of society in an effort to live outside of the areas in which Electromagnetic Field Radiation predominates. In recent years, as wireless internet and cellular technologies have expanded into previously untapped areas, people like Firstenberg have become politicized, if still marginalized, in an attempt to shut down what they feel to be an infringement on their bodies by these invisible waves. Afflictions like Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (which often come hand-in-hand) are often thought to be mere reflections of paranoia or delusional thinking. While there are few solid and credible scientific or medical studies about the effects of electromagnetic fields on living organisms, there is obviously a real potential that new and largely untested wireless transmission technologies could cause the same kinds of health problems that microwave technologies (waves of the same spectrum) are already known to. The irony here is that this will be broadcast by an invisible wave technology that most everyone agrees is completely harmless to living beings — the radio.
The piece mixes atmospheric soundscapes and recordings made with a handmade EMF translator that makes electromagnetic fields audible.